The Surf Photography Guide

©istockphoto/RichinpitWhether you are a hob­by­ist or are try­ing to launch into the extreme sports pho­tog­ra­phy niche, this arti­cle will help you learn how to take killer surf­ing action shots using a stan­dard or pro­fes­sion­al DSLR camera.

Make it Waterproof
For cap­tur­ing the action close up, the most impor­tant piece of equip­ment you can buy is a high-qual­i­ty under­wa­ter hous­ing. Good cam­eras are not cheap, and pro­tect­ing your invest­ment should be a top pri­or­i­ty, but you also want to make sure your image qual­i­ty comes out clear. While you are like­ly to match the price of the cam­era and lens con­tained with­in, it is worth shelling out the extra cash for a high-end hous­ing. If you are a pro­fes­sion­al, and get­ting a cus­tom hous­ing is fea­si­ble, there are a num­ber of peo­ple mak­ing secure built-to-order hous­ings all around the globe.

Set­ting up the Shot
Find the bal­ance between being in the action and being too close. As with any action-based pho­tog­ra­phy, the line between pho­tog­ra­ph­er and sub­ject can become eas­i­ly blurred. While you do not want to impede a surfer’s abil­i­ty to ride waves—for rea­sons of both safe­ty and respect—you do want to cap­ture an excit­ing shot. Pro­fes­sion­al surf pho­tog­ra­ph­er Pat Sta­cy rec­om­mends pay­ing atten­tion to surf con­di­tions when choos­ing your ide­al com­po­si­tion. If you are a surfer, or have knowl­edge of the sport, you will be able to gauge where you should be, in terms of both prox­im­i­ty and angle, to achieve a com­pelling composition.

If the surf is poor, and your sub­ject is prac­tic­ing tech­ni­cal skills on her board, you can high­light that action by shoot­ing up close. If surfers are pad­dling out to ride enor­mous waves, you can show the whole panora­ma by putting some dis­tance between your­self and your sub­jects. Keep in mind that the surfer should be the sub­ject of your image; an up-close shot gives you oppor­tu­ni­ties to cap­ture the emo­tion and ener­gy of the moment.

For cap­tur­ing images from the shore, you will want a decent tele­pho­to lens, and you will like­ly want to use a high shut­ter speed, unless you are going for a more artis­tic shot that requires blur. For a clean, crisp image, you want a shut­ter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second.



The Chal­lenge of Light
Work­ing with nat­ur­al light and the high con­trast between unbro­ken wave (dark) and spray (usu­al­ly white) is one chal­lenge of surf pho­tog­ra­phy. If you are com­fort­able doing so, use man­u­al set­tings to give your­self more control.

If images are too bright or washed out in appear­ance, select the low­est ISO you can. If nec­es­sary, use a high­er shut­ter speed and adjust the aper­ture f‑number to a high­er set­ting (but try not to exceed f/16, or you will lose the image’s crispness).

If your pic­tures come out too dark, find the low­est aper­ture your cam­era is capa­ble of. You may also adjust the shut­ter speed to about 1/500th of a sec­ond, but avoid going any low­er, as it will become dif­fi­cult to con­trol the blur of the camera.

Those who wish to avoid mak­ing con­stant adjust­ments may use their camera’s sports or action mode.

Above all, prac­tice makes per­fect, so get out there and experiment!